A Better ‘Pledge’: Congress Shall Make No Law

When I think of a “Pledge” I’m reminded of my fraternity days and being hazed and lightly humiliated.

House Republicans are offering their “Pledge to America” on Thursday morning, the 23rd of September. The country has been hazed enough by politicians; so a pledge to back off from some of them can be welcome.

I’m happy to see Republicans offer a “Plede to America”; I even confer a “Least Objectionable Legislator” Award occasionally when I notice a nod toward limiting government in some usually tentative, and not very bold, fashion–regardless of party. But for the time being, it’s refreshing to see politicians bring something to the table besides an appetite for power.

We need to carefully examine this Pledge program, to look not only at what it challenges, but at what it protects (are term limits in there? does it seriously question entitlements? does it root out regulation?).  Every program—every program–I say it a third time; every program, must be challenged; it’s not clear that’s where this document really goes, but let’s look and see, and encourage.  It’s not enough to cut “entitlements” back to 2008 levels as drafts indicate; today’s situation is too serious to warrant accepting a two-year-old status quo. That’s worrisome, but the jury’s out.

Instead, fundamental questions must be asked about everything the federal government is doing in 2010;  The Pledge needs to go further and ask about every program, “how is this ‘necessary and proper’ to carry out an enumerated power?”, as I’ve heard it (refreshingly) put.  Indeed, as the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Fred Smith (my boss) often jokes, “The Constitution isn’t perfect, but it’s better than what we have now.”  The doctrine of separation of powers was supposed to have protected us, but it too often means is there is no specific “tyrant” you can put your finger on.

We certainly do know the original intent of framers; the develeopment of the Constitution was a battle between those favoring a central power to tax, and those favoring a looser confederation of states or even mere amendment of the Articles;  it was a battle between the doctrines of discretionary powers and the doctrine of strict construction. There is not a mystery about intent; some favored control, others favored liberty; and it’s true that in many respects, to a large degree, discretionary powers won in those two decades after the revolution; not necessarily a good thing in this small-”l” libertarian’s view.  We are reaping the fruits of discretinary powers now.  But the important question is what do we want; what do we elect to submit to for our posterity.  There will always be an “America”; the question is merely whether policymakers are going to keep it here or not. But liberty will thrive.

We may need to think well beyond this political pledge; What kind of society is sustainable over centuries?  How about over thousands of years? Whatever the requirements, we have to make sure that America is the kind that can survive. Even with creeping government growth and paternalism, a handful of centuries is enough to wipe out precious freedoms if government is not restrained. So we want to see packages like this pledge, but also serious, fundamental extensions of it that ask questions not driven merely by responses to the antics of an opposing  party.

Those extensions, one way or another, are going to require a “prospective principle,” an “opt-out” when it comes to force-fed policy:  our descendants must wall off the future — they must protect tomorrow’s American citizens from the opportunistic, transitory politicans of any given era, such as the ones that just further collectivized health care, the financial sector, and seek to further collectivize of energy and frontier areas like telecommunications.

Or another way of looking at it is to recognize how government exploits crisis to expand it’s power, and how we ultimately aquiesce;  but there can’t be a health crisis for somebody who’s not even born yet;  there can’t be an insurance crisis for a house that’s not built yet; there can’t be an energy crisis if no one has stopped you from building a power plant, or from drilling to provide you with fuel; there can’t be an environmental crisis if you and other free citizens own the land and airsheds and the polluter pays; there can’t be a future Social Security crisis if no newborn is ever enrolled in that wretched program again. And so on.

Policy forgets that we aren’t immortal; most people aren’t born yet, and needn’t draw their first breath in a nanny/political state. I’m glad to see this Pledge to America and look forward to absorbing details and participating in where debate carries us.  But we do have to wall off the future from the policy fevers of today; that’s vital.